December 25th, 2002
I am sitting at a café overlooking the square called Djemma-el-Fna enjoying a glass of mint tea. The vast quantities of sugar take some getting used to, but it is hot and the taste and fragrance of fresh mint is habit-forming. Of course, I may well be bouncing off the walls later on, but, as they say, when in Rome etcetera.
The street immediately in front of me, bordering the square is teeming with traffic. Taxis and cars and the occasional tourist buses drive by. Scooters weave in and out, hand-drawn carts piled high lumber along next to donkey carts, some with their saddlebags loaded, and others with the owner sitting atop, placidly plodding along. Horse-drawn carriages (strictly for tourists) some with gawking tourists clip-clop by.And in the middle of all that are people – tourists, Moroccans, street urchins, shoeshine boys and others hoping to hawk a trinket. Bordering the street are stalls. Fruit-juice stands where for a handful of Dirhams you can get fresh-squeezed juice of orange, lemon, grapefruits, melons or papayas. Nuts – peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, some covered in a sugary coating, some roasted and dusted with salt.Dates piled pyramid-high in bins, figs strung in garlands, trays of apricots. And the olives. Green, red, pink, purple, black – they are a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds. I never knew there were this many varieties of olives, or that they could taste so good.
Across the road is the square. All day it has been a hive of activity. The rhythmic thumping of a dozen or more drums and the wail of flutes interspersed by the clacking and clinking of castanets, the cry of hawkers and the hum of busyness that is the music of Marrakech. Snake charmers hold crowds enthralled as they play their flutes – not the bulbous ended ones I remember from childhood but funnel shaped ones. There are usually three or four men playing. A couple more men work the snakes, giving them a prod now and then when they show an inclination to nap in the sun rather than sit up and hiss. I recognize the cobras and a python but there are several others that I don’t know. When one stubbornly declines to play it is put back into a colorful painted wooden box with airholes and another is taken out. A sidekick has the job of attracting customers, coaxing in a crowd.
Next to the snake charmers is another crowd. Easily two deep, it took some shuffling and elbowing to get a glimpse of the central stage. A play in Arabic was in progress; a hilarious one judging by the hoots of laughter. The actors, three men, one of them dressed as a woman. The seated musicians – two drummers and one with castanets – begin to play and the dance begins. One of the men hops onto a metal tub turned upside down and stamps his feet to the beat of the drums. The surface is deeply dented, testifying to the countless times that this has been staged. The man-dressed-as-a-woman has his head covered with a Berber turban, the end of it drawn over his face. Only his eyes wink out at the crowd. There is a wide sequined belt at his waist. Arms held out at shoulder height, outstretched and turning slowly he moves. The movements are slow and subtle, mostly at the waist and hips and almost hypnotic at the beginning,. The pace of the music picks up and the same movements build up to a frenzy. The sequins on the belt shimmer and fly and then stops with a bang. There is applause and some of the crowd drifts off.
Wandering on, I meet a couple of water-sellers. They are garbed in bright colorful costumes with wide conical hats festooned with what seem like pom-poms. Strung across their bodies are shallow brass bowls – 1 Dirham for a bowl of water. The water is carried in a huge leather pouch, the fur shaggy and luxurious on the outside of the pouch. We exchange smiles, and they pose for a photo. I decline the bowl of water but offer a Dirham anyway.
Here and there on stools sit women, usually in pairs. They beckon, coax, cajole and sing the usual ‘look’, ‘only look’ cry. They are the henna ladies. On their laps they hold mini photo albums, filled with pictures of henna patterns and in their hands they hold hypodermic syringes, filled with henna paste. They used to use polyethylene bags but now use the syringes – and voila! A more refined pattern. The intricate swirls, loops and lines extend from the palm onto the tops of the hand to the wrist. They use no template but work freehand. Most are friendly, gregarious and just as apt to fall into conversation as to apply a henna pattern. I sit and chat awhile with a pair of them and attempt drawing a pattern on one of their hands. Laughing at the hash I made, they pull out the back of the syringe and scoop up the henna before it has time to set.
Far off on the other side of the square are a group of six men. Dressed in jellabas they have little Fes hats on. From the tops of the hats hangs a string. As they move to the deep thumping of their drums, they rotate their heads and the string swings around.
Pink is the color of Marrakech. As the sun dips down the walls of the medina are lit by the dying rays. It is a sight to behold – the entire city seems to come aglow. Some of the performers leave and others take their place. The hand-drawn carts pull up into the square – the year-round open-air food market is about to begin.
Soon they have the table set up – long rickety wood table set in front of table laid high with food. Each stall is marked with a number. The barbecue ones offer kababs, tajines or couscous. Chicken, kebabs and sausages lie in glistening piles. Next to it are bowls of couscous, trays of fresh-cut tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, ready to be mixed in salads, and of course a pyramids of olives. Along the front are the bottles of soda. The smile-wreathed chef and his helpers perform their antics and call in customers. Behind them curl the tendrils of steam, from the tajine pots ready to be ladled out. There are other stalls too. Some sell escaroles, or snails. The chef stands behind the huge cauldron, ladling out the snails and the soup in bowls. The customers sit around the table on high chairs, like those at a pub and drink up. They take a toothpick and pick out the snail from its shell and eat it with a satisfied look on their faces.
Further on there are stalls that sell sweetmeats – honey-covered tart-like delicacies served with a hot drink. The drink tastes like cinnamon, cloves and honey mixed in a hot broth – welcome warmth in a night that has gone from pleasant to chilly. There are crowds everywhere – tourists, Moroccans, locals. This may seem like a festival, but it is a nightly occurrence. Every night, year-round the food market caters to all. The din continues, the horse-drawn carriages clack by and the night settles in on Marrakech. Unable to eat anymore I waddle off to my hotel room.